May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday we had for our Gospel reading St Luke's dramatic account of the Lord's final appearance on the first day of his resurrection to his followers. He has gone to great lengths to convince them he is truly risen, that it is their flesh and blood master that stands before them, and not some ghost of vision. He has also gone to great lengths to open their minds and hearts to what the Scriptures had foretold about him, and that indeed he had told them all this before it happened: that the Messiah must suffer and die; but that on the third day he would rise again. He then tells them that 'that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.'
There are echoes of these words in today's Gospel reading from St John – although perhaps the word 'foreshadowing' would be better, given that what the evangelist is reporting here took place long before that evening in the upper room. Jesus tells his disciples that he is the good shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep; that he lays down his life in order to take it up again; and he tells them he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold, that he must bring them also, and they will listen to his voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Clearly our Lord is speaking of the same events. In John he is telling them what is to happen; in Luke he is reminding them of what he had told them and how they have now seen those events take place. The Good shepherd is Christ, the Messiah; his laying down his life for the sheep is the suffering and death he endured for us; his taking up his life again is his rising from the dead on the third day; and those sheep of another fold who are to be brought in are the people of all nations who will also become his followers so that there will be one flock, one shepherd – in other words one Church with Christ as its head.
And, incidentally, I should note that Jesus' claim to be the 'good shepherd' is a divine claim; who, after all, is the shepherd in our psalm today, psalm 23? The Lord, God himself. So when Jesus identifies himself as the shepherd, he is putting himself on a par with God; a claim that is he later fully substantiates when, having laid down his life freely for us, he is able to take it up again by rising from the dead.
St John picks up the theme from his gospel of how Jesus laid down his life for us in his first letter, which we also heard read today. And in that he says something quite challenging: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Now what does it mean to 'lay down our lives for one another?' Partly it means caring for our brothers and sisters in need, for as St John goes on to tell us 'How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?' Just as in the Lord's prayer we are told we can not have God's forgiveness if we will not forgive others, neither will we have God's love if we do not love others. To love God is to love others; and what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters is as if we do if for Christ himself.
But there is more challenge to come. Loving our neighbour requires more than sharing from our material goods. And laying down our life for one another is more than making sure our brothers and sisters have food and clothing and shelter. For man does not live by bread alone, as I am sure you will recall our Lord telling Satan face to face in our readings from the other side of Easter, all the way at the beginning of Lent, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. What kind of love would it be if, having made sure that our brothers and sisters are not hungry or without clothes, we left them to die spiritually?
It is this love that we see in action in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. St Peter and another disciple have been arrested by the religious authorities for preaching the Gospel and healing a crippled man. The next day they are brought before Annas the High Priest, and Caiphas, and others – the same men who had arrested Jesus, beaten him, procured false witnesses against him, subjected him to a farce of a trial, condemned him, and then brought him to Pilate, stirring up the crowd and forcing the Roman governor to crucify a man he found innocent or risk a rebellion and serious trouble with the emperor. Who would blame them for being afraid; who would blame them for bowing to the demands of the religious authorities and agreeing to say no more about this Gospel or this Jesus whom they had killed?
But they are not afraid – why? Because they love God; because they believe in the Resurrection and the good news of Jesus Christ; they take seriously his command to proclaim his message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the world, beginning in Jerusalem; because they believe that they, like Christ must be willing to lay down their lives for the love of their brothers and sisters. And so they stand before the men who crucified Christ, strengthened by the Holy Spirit who had come upon them at Pentecost, and defy them; they proclaim to them that even though these killers had rejected Christ, there 'is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ The Gospel must be preached for there is no other way for souls to be saved; and we who follow Christ must be willing to lay down our lives as Christ did, for the love of our brothers and sisters; it is in this way that not only we show that we love them, but also that we love God.
And who is this companion of Peter's who stands with him and risks death for the sake of sharing the Gospel and saving the souls of others? The portion of Scripture we heard read does not say; but it is mentioned earlier in the passage. And that man is St John. The same man who gave us our Gospel reading and Epistle for today; this reminds us that the evangelist did not just 'talk the talk' when it came taking the words of Christ seriously, that it was not just words to him when he wrote of laying down our lives for others and bringing the message of salvation to others. He was willing to walk the walk also and risk his own life to put Christ's command into action. It was what he was called to; and it is what we are called to. I pray that you will have the grace to, like St John, answer that call and so win for yourselves the eternal life that you wish for others. Amen